April 24, 2024 - 7:00am

When I read the title of this week’s John Harris column in the Guardian, my heart sank. Apparently, a “radical British politics rooted in nature is spreading”.

It’s not that I don’t believe him — indeed, I’ve written pieces on the rise of the Green Party in the Conservative heartlands. Nor is it because I’m a wicked Tory — if Left-wing activists are willing to devote a portion of their energy to genuine conservation, then good for them. I’m not the least bit ecosceptic, having devoted a fair proportion of my own life to fighting anti-environmentalism on the Right. What I fear, however, is that the struggle to protect and regenerate the British countryside is set to become a culture war.

Thanks to groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, this has already happened to climate change policy. Rather than focus on the massive progress that has already been made on decarbonising the economy — and what needs to be done next — the so-called activists have hijacked the issue, making ridiculous demands (Net Zero in years rather than decades) and deliberately targeting their protests at the general public.

These antics are a gift to anti-green lobbyists. They only have to position themselves against the straw men so naively provided by the other side and, suddenly, their ecophobic grift is box office again.

The thought of the same happening to nature conservation is depressing beyond words. The last thing we need is to break up the national consensus on this issue. By all means campaign on relevant causes such as cleaning up our rivers, but don’t rewild the countryside with Left-wing hobby horses: we have enough invasive species as it is.

For instance, Harris writes about “access” to the countryside — as if there weren’t over 140,000 miles of footpaths, bridleways and byways in England and Wales alone (according to the Ramblers Association). He also praises the efforts of groups such as Muslim Hikers and Black Girls Hike, but then claims these were needed to undermine “ancient and exclusionary cliches about green spaces”.

He fails to elaborate further on that point, but it is symptomatic of a classic “the countryside is racist” genre. You really aren’t going to meet many white supremacists out in the sticks. Indeed, you’re unlikely to meet many people at all. Aside from the obvious tourist traps, our green spaces aren’t just wide open, they’re mostly empty. To visit rural Britain is to have the place to yourself.

Perhaps that’s why some on the Left want to “[give] nature a set of legal rights” — as if rivers and forests were people too. But rights, as well as needing to be human rights, should also be exercised alongside responsibilities — and not just by farmers and landowners, but by all of us.

Those who espouse radical politics — for instance, the festival-goers of Glastonbury — have a particular responsibility to lead by example. All too often, though, they don’t. Certainly, I’d be much happier about Harris’s desire to have people “joyously and defiantly tangled up” with nature if that didn’t include their rubbish.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.